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Most atheists & agnostics are known for practicing scientific skepticism. They reject any miracle/supernatural claims unless solid scientific evidence is provided. A consequence of this epistemological standard is that most atheists end up discounting all testimonies of the supernatural, which unfortunately also includes all known arguments for the resurrection of Jesus (the cornerstone miracle of Christianity) that are grounded in historical/testimonial evidence.

But what about Christians?
How much epistemological value do Christians ascribe to testimonial accounts?
How much respect do they have for scientific skepticism?

Are Christians more willing to accept extraordinary claims based on testimonial accounts, even if no scientific evidence is provided?

Note: if different Christian denominations or groups have different epistemological standards, I would appreciate an overview of these (main differences and similarities).


Related questions (food for thought)

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  • Most Christians emphasize the contextual meaning of the event much more so than the scientific proof for its being a proper miracle (see definition #2 here). Just came across this testimony today and thought of sharing this with you, esp. wrt to his "miraculous" saving from a near fatal accident being hit by a huge semi-trailer truck when he was between 10-20. This meaning aspect being 10x more prominent explains the lack of position on this Q in most denominations. Commented Aug 19, 2022 at 14:21

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I'll offer a perspective that is compatible with many Christian denominations, though I would not claim it is representative of what all Christians believe.


Respect for skepticism


I have some skeptical leanings myself, and I can respect a logically consistent intellectual caution. I can appreciate why people wish to have a high degree of certainty on matters of great consequence.

The form of skepticism I struggle to respect, however, is that in which skeptics apply a standard of scrutiny to others' views that they do not apply to their own. Unfortunately, I see this all too often, particularly in those who seek out opportunities to ridicule Christians. Below are a few examples of what I perceive to be problematic/inconsistent skepticism.

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Self-destructive arguments

Like the classic sci-fi superweapon, skepticism wreaks havoc when turned upon itself. A few challenging questions which make even skeptics uncomfortable:

  • What is the justification for believing that cause & effect are real?
  • What is the justification for believing that the universe obeys laws? And that those laws are the same today as they were yesterday?
  • Why is logical reasoning trustworthy?

These concepts (and others) must be assumed in order to do science in the first place. The way to handle these objections is to appeal to experiential evidence; however, this invalidates attempts to dismiss experiential evidence (we'll come back to that when we discuss testimonial accounts).

Sometimes it is asserted that we cannot be sure of anything. My response is to ask...are you sure?

Some will claim they don't believe anything is true. My response is to ask...do you believe that is true?

I'll offer two examples of self-destructive arguments:

Verificationism

One of the classic mistakes in skeptical thought is verificationism; a simple, jargon-free description of verificationist principles would be: "you shouldn't believe anything that can't be demonstrated by science" (see the link above for a much more in-depth discussion of the philosophy).

The trouble is this: the statement itself--the statement "you shouldn't believe anything that can't be demonstrated by science"--that statement cannot be demonstrated by science! So by its own admission, it shouldn't be believed.

Free Will

Many skeptics accept that free will is probably real--but in recent years there's been a remarkable surge, especially online, in people who claim not to believe in free will (the implications that would carry for a hedonistic lifestyle is one possible explanation for the popularity of the idea (example)).

One of the most common arguments against free will is that atoms do not have free will, and people are made of atoms, therefore people have no free will. In section A of this post I show why that argument is self-refuting.

(this is, of course, an informal presentation of the argument--see the link above for the formal argument and formal refutation -- copy-pasting it here would make this post impractically long. The idea that natural materials only give rise to determinism or randomness is but a rewording of the the 3rd premise in the formal argument--a premise which is shown to be false. Those who wish to disagree are encouraged to present their own formal argument, though it may be more practical to do so on a separate question scoped to free will)

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Misrepresenting Faith

It is not uncommon for those of a skeptical bent to criticize Christians for having faith, when they themselves (the skeptics) exercise faith all the time. I offer some examples in this video on my channel.

Whether we're working with a scientific theory, a machine, other humans, a theological principal, etc. theists, agnostics, and atheists alike all regularly employ the idea that past behavior is a reasonably good predictor of future behavior. That is a form of faith, and that type of faith is essential for humans to be able to function.

We trust people because they were reliable in the past. We trust our perceptions (mostly) because they were reliable in the past. Many theists express trust in God for essentially the same reasons that scientists express trust in the scientific method (to be sure, I am not at all suggesting that theists & scientists are mutually exclusive categories). Faith is not belief without evidence. As I argued here, all belief is evidence-based, and faith is believing something strongly enough to act on it.

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Begging the Question

Many academic disciplines implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) rule out the supernatural a priori. While there are circumstances where it is unhelpful to appeal to the supernatural, as a blanket rule it is both irrational & intellectually limiting to exclude it from consideration.

The problem is particularly apparent in Biblical studies. The Bible is a book that purports to be full of prophecy from beginning to end. In order to objectively evaluate a book about prophecy we cannot start out with the a priori assumption that all prophecy is real, or all prophecy is fake, because doing so restricts the possible solutions we can discover. We would only ever be able to find ideas that align with our worldview; anything outside that bubble would remain forever invisible to us. This is not science, this is dogma.

To make an a priori assumption on the very topic under evaluation is to arbitrarily select a solution without even evaluating the evidence. If we start with the premise that this book is a fraud, of course we’ll end up with a conclusion that this book is a fraud—it’s one of our premises! But that’s not an argument, it’s circular reasoning.

Methodological naturalism has been used many times to build theories which in turn are used to argue against the existence of God. This too is circular. It becomes particularly damaging to honest, intellectual inquiry when students are taught to believe something is true because the experts say so, without acknowledging that the experts' arguments require assuming naturalism at the outset.

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Claims of Intellectual Superiority

Perhaps most frustrating to open-minded, inquisitive Christians, is the oft-repeated claim that the faithful are naïve for putting trust in things they cannot see; whereas the skeptical are wise for putting their trust in science and academia.

When this happens, the following are useful questions to ask:

  • You say I should not believe in things I cannot see. Do you believe in protons?
  • You say you believe in the Big Bang. Can you explain the math behind the theory?

It turns out we all rely on expert opinion for many of the things we believe; however, sometimes, we put our trust in different experts. As more and more university faculty express alarm that universities are becoming politicized, and open exchange of ideas is frowned upon or downright punished, public confidence in the impartiality of academia wanes.

Some universities have learned the same game mastered by the guilds centuries ago: if you can control who gets in and who gets recognized, you can ensure that your ideas are perpetuated without competition forever. This may be politically desirable, but it is not remotely scientific.

The claim that some very high % of professors in a given area support X view is not persuasive evidence that X is correct, if bowing before X view was an unofficial prerequisite to becoming a professor (e.g. rejecting intelligent design in order to secure employment as a biologist).

(Note that this game is sometimes played without explicitly censoring anything, but through funding. If I fund the studies favorable to my views and do not fund the others, the data--the almighty data--will naturally favor my views as well)

To be sure, I do see great value in putting confidence in what has been discovered by those who study rocks. I just see much, much more reason to put confidence in Him who made the rocks.

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Conclusion 1

In summary, I do not take serious issue with intellectually honest skepticism. That is, serious, rigorous inquiry that:

  • Does not rely on self-destructive arguments
  • Does not beg the question
  • Acknowledges its dependence on faith in some form
  • Does not engage in hypocrisy or double standards

Regrettably, my experience with most contemporary skeptics movements is that these principals are regularly violated.


Testimonial Evidence


All evidence of any form rests upon a foundation of experiential evidence. Whether that evidence came from an equation, a machine, or human senses, take it back a few steps and you’ll end up with a human mind. A human mind developed the mathematical axioms and the machine, and a human mind interpreted information presented by the senses.

We cannot get around experiential evidence. Those who suggest it be excluded from consideration discard their own worldviews along with those of their opponents. Even the claim that something should be trusted because it is reliable is an appeal to experiential evidence.

As discussed above, we necessarily rely on experiential evidence in scientific inquiry. If scientific inquiry and religious belief both rely on experiential evidence, then reliance on experiential evidence is a not a valid basis for critique by one viewpoint against the other.

Particularly when it comes to historical claims, testimonial evidence (people's claims about their experiential evidence in the past) is essential. Countless historical events whose authenticity is undisputed are unrepeatable events.

We can not (or at the very least, should not) repeat the exact specifics of the Titanic disaster--it is a unique event in history. Although the event cannot be repeatedly tested, there is mountains of evidence to support the basic claims of the eyewitnesses about what happened. And even though eyewitnesses conflicted with each other in their testimony, their claims enable us to accurately piece together some minimal facts.

Example:

  • The Titanic struck an iceberg. No serious Titanic historian disputes this
  • We cannot repeat that unique event on April 14, 1912
  • We cannot examine the iceberg-inflicted damage on the wreck (that part of the ship is permanently embedded in the sea floor).

The sinking of the most impressive floating engineering feat humans had ever constructed (to that time) by a chunk of frozen water is an extraordinary claim!! And yet the only iron-clad reason we have to believe it is eyewitness testimony. That theists, agnostics, and atheists accept the epistemological value of this testimony has a chilling effect on the assertion that testimonial evidence is inadequate for extraordinary claims. You might say it sinks the idea entirely.

Eyewitness testimony passes muster all the time in the study of history; that a claim relies solely on eyewitness testimony is not--by itself--a rational basis for rejecting the claim.

The death of Julius Caesar is a non-repeatable event; we know about it from eyewitness testimony and no serious historian doubts that he was stabbed to death on the Ides of March. The death & resurrection of Jesus is a non-repeatable event; we know about it from eyewitness testimony.

(For a deeper dive on the claim that we know about Jesus' death & resurrection from eyewitness testimony, see my video series Who When & Why - the Writing of the Gospels which establishes this from the standpoint of a historian, not a theologian)

That testimonial evidence is acceptable except in supernatural cases is cherry-picking. Since "supernatural" refers to events that are not explained by our understanding & experience with the way events naturally occur, this means that in order for one to blanket reject testimony of the supernatural it is necessary to assert:

  • Testimonial evidence is permissible if it aligns with my experience with the way the world works
  • Testimonial evidence is not permissible if it does not align with my experience with the way the world works

This is the same attitude that resulted in the punishment of Galileo. It is neither rational, nor scientific. We could just as well say that we're fine with testimonial evidence as long as it doesn't tell us something we don't want to hear.

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Conclusion 2

I can respect logically consistent skeptical inquiry; I regret that this form of skepticism is something I have only occasionally seen.

Testimonial evidence is used by everyone--including skeptics--all the time. Nothing I have said should be construed to mean that we should accept everything we hear on the basis of testimonial evidence--far from it--we should scrutinize this form of evidence as we would any other.

Christians regularly appeal to testimonial evidence to validate the claim that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, and there is substantial historical evidence supporting this claim.

However, as discussed further here, the most widespread and enduring reason given for trusting the apostles is the first-hand, repeatable evidence of the ratification of their words by the Holy Spirit.



Appendix--response to questions

What if we live in a deterministic universe? Fortunately, we don't need to answer this one, because we do not live in a deterministic universe. (For those unfamiliar with the implications of the uncertainty principle, this video by Michio Kaku offers a useful into)

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Does my position on testimonial evidence require accepting claims of alien abductions, bigfoot sightings, etc.? No. I have merely argued that we cannot reject testimonial evidence simply because it is testimonial evidence. As with any evidence, we must still evaluate the quality of the evidence.

Neither a Christian, nor anyone else, need adopt a different epistemological standard when evaluating conspiracy theories. In many (most?) cases conspiracy theories exist to fill the void created by uncertainty. We could acknowledge that uncertainty exists on the topic of bigfoot sightings and still arrive at any of these conclusions:

  • the evidence provides persuasive reason to believe bigfoot exists ("bigfoot-ism")
  • the evidence provides persuasive reason to believe bigfoot does not exist ("a-bigfoot-ism")
  • the evidence does not provide persuasive reason to adopt one conclusion or the other ("bigfoot agnosticism")
  • I don't care ("bigfoot apathy")

A priori acceptance of all experiential evidence would of course be untenable. But a priori rejection of all experiential evidence because experiential evidence is unreliable would be self refuting:

  • Measurement of its reliability relies upon experiential evidence
  • This would mean rejecting all evidence of any form, since all forms of evidence with which we interact can ultimately be traced back to experiential evidence

Those acknowledging that some testimonial evidence may be reliable have already conceded the very modest point I am making here: we cannot rationally reject testimonial evidence because it is testimonial evidence; a claim must be evaluated on its own merits.

(An in-depth evaluation of specific claims would be well beyond the scope of this question)

Inconsistent skeptics may claim that experiential evidence is consistently unreliable. I offer a consistent position in suggesting the possibility that experiential evidence is inconsistently unreliable.

Rather than blindly believing in the unreliability of experiential evidence, we should put specific claims to the test. Does that make me more skeptical than the skeptics? I don't know, but I'm skeptical of the skeptics' skepticism.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 23:21
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The traditional Christian worldview is that of holding to an open epistemology. A classical example would be that of C.S. Lewis and what he wrote on the subject of miracles.

C.S. Lewis urges in his book Miracles, that Christians need to develop a nose like a bloodhound for the concealed assumption that miracles are impossible, improbable or improper. He writes, "If we admit God, must we admit Miracles? Indeed, you have no security against it. That is the bargain."

The Lutheran theologian and Christian apologist, Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, gives a helpful view of how authenticating miracles involves a simple test:

We must suspend disbelief, check out the evidence with the care demanded for events in general, attempt to formulate explanatory constructs that best fit the facts, and at the same time be willing always to accept facts even if our best attempts to explain them prove inadequate. If we are religionists, we must avoid the orthodox presupposition (i.e. cessationism, my edit) that supernatural events must be limited to biblical timess, and the even less satisfactory presupposition of liberal theology that all supernatural occurrences, including biblical miraces, are the product of the naïve, world- view of pre-modern man. (Principalities and Powers, page 46)

Montgomery further clarifies:

The care demanded is no less than, but also no greater than, that required for events in general...Not knowing the universe as a whole, we have no way of calculating the probabilities for or against particular events, so each event must be investigated ad hoc, without initial prejudice. (Principalities and Powers, pages 193-194)

The less traditional Christian worldview can be found in writings like Van Harvey's The Historian and the Believer: The Morality of Historical Knowledge and Christian Belief.

While being an emeritus professor of religious studies at Stanford University, Van Harvey also wrote an essay on Skeptifying Belief.

The paper originated at the conference, “Scripture and Skepticism” (2007) at the University of California, Davis, under the auspices of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion and the UCD Department of Religious Studies. Among other things, Van Harvey pointed out that:

The framework of assumptions and conceptions employed by a given interpreter is referred to as a “hermeneutics.” There is, it is claimed, a difference between a “hermeneutics of recollection” and a “hermeneutics of suspicion”: a difference between a sympathetic interpretation that seeks to retrieve religious meaning and a hostile interpretation that aims to debunk it.

This, in turn, has sometimes been formulated as follows: the interpretation of someone who believes in the truth of a given religious text will be different from someone who is a skeptic, and, since there are no objective grounds for preferring one interpretation over the other, a hermeneutics of belief is as legitimate as one of unbelief.

In reply Van Harvey argues:

...although the historical critical method does practice methodological skepticism, this skepticism is not necessarily rooted in hostility to religion but is inherent in the logic of critical historical inquiry itself.

Christian fundamentalists make critical historical inquiry impossible, be­cause they claim to know in advance what any such historical inquiry will yield.

Critical historians confronted with an alleged miracle as an explanation for an event or even as a description of an event have, first of all, no way of deciding whether the event is a miracle or not. They have no way of judging whether some alleged supernatural reality—a jinni, angel, or deity—is the cause of the event. They have no way of judging what would constitute evidence for attributing an event to this or that supernatural cause, and evidence is crucial for the critical historian. It is evidence that bears on whether such an event can be said to have occurred, and it is evidence that bears on what causes, if any, explain that event. At best, all historians can say is that such an event was anomalous.

Van Harvey was a founding member of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion in 1984. I wonder if he ever read C.S. Lewis'paper On Obstinancy of Belief?

Contrary to Van Harvey's allegation, traditional Christians have no problem using the aim and methods of critical historical inquiry to vindicate the truth claims of Christianity. The significance of anomalous events, such as the resurrection of Jesus, are best explained by the testimony of Jesus himself.

As was pointed out in a previous post by another author, legal reasoning such as that illustrated by the work of Simon Greenleaf should be part of doing critical historical inquiry.

In the field of legal reasoning, it is said that collateral generalities should not obscure the concrete specifics. When it comes to claims of miracles, the concrete specifics of eyewitness testimonies should not be dismissed on the basis that big miracles are not occurring on a regular basis. In other words, any “hermeneutic of suspicion” has a ministerial role in examining evidence and not a magisterial role. As the Christian philosopher Dallas Willard pointed out:

Doubt is a good thing… Until you have your answers in response to a doubt, you don’t have a bucket to hold your answer in. It’s the doubt that gives you a place to receive your answer.

If you are going to be a doubter, be sure to doubt your doubts as well as your beliefs… Believe your beliefs and doubt your doubts as well as doubt your beliefs and believe your doubts… This is about how knowledge grows. And knowledge grows not only by doubting your beliefs and believing your doubts, but by doubting your doubts and believing your beliefs.

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An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists, by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice is an excellent work to help bridge the gap for scientific skeptics, many of whom are trying to remain true to rules of scientific investigation. Science is simply not allowed to admit non-repeatable, non-disprovable eyewitness testimony as fact. Jurisprudence, however, is allowed to carefully weight such testimony and admit the same as evidence in courts of law.

In this book, Greenleaf examines the testimony of the evangelists who have written the Gospel accounts, particularly focusing on things related to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. He covers how the law handles apparent discrepancies in multiple accounts, how and why such evidence is weighted and admissible, and how and why it may be discounted. The legal conclusion he draws is that, from the standpoint of American jurisprudence, the testimony is overwhelmingly admissible.

This small book was written by Simon Greenleaf, Dane Professor of Law in Harvard University. He was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and began the practice of law in Portland, Maine. Serving as professor of law at Harvard University from 1833-48, he was instrumental in organizing the university's law program. His three-volume work, A Treatise on the Law of Evidence, in considered a classic of American jurisprudence to this day.

This is a short but fairly robust work and an excellent read for skeptics of every stripe.

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    I don't understand this answer. The question is about scientific skepticism, but the answer is about the judicial system. Two different things. Also, I don't come often to this site so I don't know the usual habits for answering, but I think this answer would be improve by summarising (maybe quoting too) the main arguments of the book it refers to.
    – Taladris
    Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 9:54
  • @Taladris I was merely trying to point out an area where eyewitness testimony is acceptable as evidence. The summary is that Greenleaf finds the testimony of the evangelists regarding the resurrection of Jesus from the dead to be admissible in an American court of law. Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 11:55
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    @MikeBoden: That's telling a lot that you cannot find an area within science where testimonies are acceptable. We know that many pseudo-medicines rely heavily on testimonies for their validations, but don't hold up against scientific scrutiny. (To be fair, research in history uses testimonies)
    – Taladris
    Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 23:56
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A few things are important to recognize.

  1. Using the title or header of "skeptic" or "naturalist" an atheist or skeptic may attempt to use a kind of bravado implying legitimacy to scientific or naturalistic suppositions, this header is being allow to suggest far more than any skeptic actually owns
  2. No one, period, operates outside of faith. Every atheist or skeptic has shrouded their suppositions, bias, philosophies with a layer of philosophical naturalism, which is in a very real sense a faith in the natural world to reveal and answer the existential and philosophical.
  3. Since this faith in science, nature, mans-intellect, create an anti-spiritual response by its very nature the intellectual dodge is to suggest the Christian's own dependence upon faith negates any credibility his answers may hold; the skeptic in hypocrisy has used faith in philosophy (philosophical materialism) (philosophical naturalism) (methodological naturalism) to supposedly negate Christian faith and Spiritual truths. This is simply a bold faced bait-and-switch.

The reality as I see it, is the Christian is confronting a person who has placed his faith... (though its left unsaid and never to be admitted by the skeptic) in philosophy and theories that themselves are self-attesting assertions that the natural world is itself the author or creator of any spirituality. Read Dennett's book "Breaking the Spell". He goes to great lengths to give theories purporting to prove human evolution (nature) is the creator of spiritualized understandings of a humans environment. This is a perfect example of placing faith (not scientific fact) as the empowering force to believe anti-spiritual rhetoric best describes biblical truth.

Armed with this, you will not be so accepting of their claims, their assumptions, their theories, and most of all their supposed facts that all there is in this world is the material and natural.

If you're interested in presuppositionalism, have a good look at Van Til's presuppositionalism. It is an excellent apologetic designed to expose the non-sense of atheist rhetoric.

Again to be clear the atheist is using a disguised faith cloaked in science-jargon to invalidate the Christians faith in the Divine Creator and his Son.

Once you expose this as the impetus for denial, you can now deal with the real issues, namely, it's not pure science that is the enemy of the Christian faith, it's an atheist's faith in himself, theories, his intellect and other philosophies or ideologies. It's a pure bait-and-switch... complimented with grandstanding, gaslighting and ad-hominem attacks.

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